Police need to be police, not paper-pushers

Police departments across the United States are grappling with high rates of violent crime and increasing rates of property crime while they scramble to attract, train, and retain officers. A potential solution few observers have advanced: Offloading non-core duties to private auxiliary security agents who can help expand police capacity.

A surge of retirements and ongoing challenges with recruitment and retention have left many police departments short-staffed and overworked, with low morale exacerbated by a shift in public sentiment. In New York City, for example, the NYPD has relaxed physical fitness requirements in the face of a record wave of retirements and persistent shortfalls in recruiting. Add in cops’ fear that any misstep will spark outrage in a fully videoed public space, and it becomes clear that we are witnessing a critical moment for policing in this country.

To make matters worse, officers are spending more and more time on non-core policing tasks not related to crime prevention and investigation. For instance, administrative obligations and report writing take up anywhere from 21% to 50% of a police officer’s total time. A 2021 national survey of police departments across the country revealed that 38% of police officers spend two to four hours per shift on administrative tasks, plus another 16% who spend more than 4 hours (or 50% of their time) on paperwork.

In contrast, relatively little time (often less than 5%) actually goes to crime prevention functions. This skew obviously impacts police effectiveness in responding to crime in the community—which might help to explain declining “closure” rates for many categories of criminal activity, especially homicide.

Officers join the force to be police, not paper-pushers. They are more likely to stay if they get the chance to act like police. But the reality of policing in the United States is that we have asked cops to take on more and more responsibilities that are increasingly far removed from critical policing tasks. In the face of rising crime and plunging recruitment, this is not sustainable. No wonder morale is low.

A properly trained auxiliary private security agent can easily take on many administrative, non-core tasks, freeing up officers to prevent and fight crime. Officers will get to concentrate more of their time on the specialized and demanding tasks for which they were trained, and which presumably led them to become officers in the first place.

There is evidence that this leads to increased public safety and decreased public spending. For example, in the United Kingdom, the Lincolnshire Police saved £18 million over three years after signing a 10-year contract with a private security company in 2012 to outsource administrative duties and other non-core tasks. Importantly, the crime rate also fell by 14% in the first year.

Our recent study estimated that outsourcing 75% of administrative tasks alone would generate annual savings of more than $177 million for the Los Angeles Police Department, over $35 million for the Miami-Dade Police Department, and almost $22 million for the Milwaukee Police Department. Other tasks that don’t require the attention of a police officer—related to traffic control or the operation of sobriety checkpoints for example—can also be divested, leading to additional savings.

To make the best use of scarce police time, reform efforts must address the growing mismatch between what police actually do and what we need them to do. Many may respond to the idea of some non-core policing duties being outsourced to private agents with skepticism: Can such a fundamental public good be outsourced? But the fundamental reality is that policing time remains limited. Every hour police spend on non-core activities is an hour less that can be spent on making people and communities safer.

President Biden has made it clear that his plan for crime prevention is to increase spending on policing, recently announcing plans to fund an additional 100,000 local police positions as part of his $37-billion Safer America Plan. But increased spending on policing has not historically been correlated with lower crime rates.

It’s time to redraw the balance between core and non-core policing activities—and, in doing so, make our communities safer while preserving public resources.

Arthur Rizer is founder of the ARrow Center for Justice Reform, and a former police officer, U.S. Army Officer, and federal prosecutor. Krystle Wittevrongel is senior policy analyst and Alberta Project Lead at the MEI. Olivier Rancourt is an economist at MEI. They are the authors of “Enhancing Public Safety While Saving Public Dollars with Auxiliary Private Security Agents” and the views reflected in this opinion piece are their own.

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